Disability Rights Activists from Not Dead Yet and National Council on Disability Featured in Dr. Oz Segment on Assisted Suicide

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Members of Not Dead Yet and National Council on Disability were featured in a Dr. Oz segment on assisted suicide. Members expressed opposition to assisted suicide, but overall the segment was biased in favor of the practice.

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"I really felt that Dana’s loneliness and feelings of being a burden on her family were at the heart of her apparent support for assisted suicide. . . . I saw and heard a cry for help."

On November 1st the syndicated Dr. Oz Show broadcast a segment addressing the topic of assisted suicide. Several members of Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group, and Ari Ne’eman, a presidentially appointed member of the National Council on Disability, attended the taping of the program by invitation. Ne’eman is also head of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

Both Not Dead Yet and the National Council on Disability, as well as several other national disability organizations, oppose legalization of assisted suicide. The groups are concerned that assisted suicide poses a danger to people with significant disabilities, whether or not their conditions are classified as terminal.

The broadcast opened with Montel Williams, who has multiple sclerosis (MS), describing his experiences of pain with MS, his previous suicidal feelings, and his current support for laws allowing assisted suicide.

During the program’s two-hour taping, Danny Robert, a man with multiple sclerosis who uses a ventilator, was identified as a member of Not Dead Yet and given the opportunity to speak from the audience. Robert spoke about his initial marriage break up and wish to die, and his concern that he would have died and missed his current life and new relationship if assisted suicide were legal.

After attending the taping, but prior to the broadcast, Robert wrote a guest Not Dead Yet blog about the experience. In part, he described his observations about a disabled woman featured in the segment:

[Excerpt] Dr. Oz introduced Dana, an African American woman in her late 40s or early 50s with ALS. . . . She sat in a manual chair, somewhat reclined, wearing a ventilator mask. A video played on the big screens, showing Dana before tragedy hit, healthy, strong, athletic... (very exploitative). Then the ventilator mask came off (the ventilator alarmed briefly) and Dana began to speak. She said she had been living with the progression of ALS for 8 years and she was tired. She hated having to depend on others for her care and she couldn't take it anymore. She said she was depressed, lonely, had no friends left and she wanted to die. Nadina [my life partner] and I looked at each other and said “that's why she wants to die.”

[Excerpt] Dr. Oz asked Dana's son how it felt to live with his mom. He said it was sad and that, though he didn't really want her to die, he also didn't want her to suffer anymore. Dana's daughter said: "It's heart-breaking, unbearable to watch her suffer. She's had enough." Dana's sister, who has her health care proxy, reiterated: "She can't take it anymore. She's suffered enough." It was obvious to us (but I guess to no one else) that the family had “had enough.”

Perhaps unintentionally, the episode demonstrated one of the significant reasons that Not Dead Yet opposes assisted suicide. “I really felt that Dana’s loneliness and feelings of being a burden on her family were at the heart of her apparent support for assisted suicide,” said Robert. “When Dr. Byock, another guest on the show, pointed out that she could just refuse antibiotics the next time she got pneumonia, Dr. Oz asked her directly if she would do that. Dana replied, ‘That’s a good question.’ When I looked at her expressions as her family spoke, I saw and heard a cry for help. But most of the Dr. Oz audience didn’t seem to hear her ambivalence and her plea. They just applauded her wish to die.”

Dr. Oz stated that he supports assisted suicide at the beginning of the taping and at the end of the broadcast. The producers included extensive footage and interview time with the disabled individual and family supporting assisted suicide, which was not comparably sought or obtained from a disabled individual and family opposing assisted suicide.

Ne’eman was also given the opportunity to speak during the two-hour taping. His comments were not included in the final one hour broadcast, but were included in two online video segments (part 1, part 2). Ne'eman was also invited to submit a written article on the topic which is featured on the program’s website.

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Diane Coleman
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